How Coffee Makes the “Grade,” and What Green-Coffee Grades Mean to You

Posted on December 5th, 2019

AA, AB, PB, AX, SHB, SHG, EP, DP—scanning a list of green coffees can look like a Scrabble board gone horribly awry, but these letters really represent information that can be useful for a coffee roaster: They are the “grade” of the coffee.

Green coffee grades mean different things in different places, but all of the different acronyms are used professionally for quality identification and contract fulfillment: In order to ensure quality and consistency in ordering and inventory, green buyers and coffee roasters might find it practical to be generally aware of some of the major differences among the types—as well as to consider when they may and may not be the most helpful parameter to consider when making purchasing decisions.

The grading system for coffees was established specifically for large-volume commodity and commercial contracts, which treat individual seeds of coffee as being replaceable by type: In other words, that’s the idea that one pile of green coffee of a certain quality from Colombia is roughly the same as another pile of green coffee of the same grade of coffee from Colombia, regardless of who the producers are, and regardless of microregion, microclimate, duration of fermentation, etc. Commodity coffee is designed so that the buyer can know what they will expect to receive based on the written contract itself, not necessarily based on samples that they’ve tasted or meticulously inspected.

However, grades are also useful outside of commercial applications: Roasters can use grades not only for a quality predictor, as they often refer to things like defect counts, but some can also be used to gauge roast uniformity. For example, certain traditional grades, such as those in Kenya and Colombia, measure the seeds’ screen size, with bigger being “better.” In Guatemala, coffee is graded based on elevation, with Strictly Hard Bean (1,600–1,700 meters above sea level) being the highest quality. Ethiopia grades based on presence of defect, with grades 1–9: In order to qualify for a top grade, a representative sample of the coffee can only contain a certain number of defects such as bug or milling damage, blacks, twigs or other debris, etc.

Wet Hulled Process, Sumatra

Washed Process, Burundi

Natural Process, Costa Rica

Meanwhile, in some grades and contracts there will be an additional detail that refers to the preparation or sorting that’s happened in the selection of the coffee. “EP” for instance, stands for “European preparation,” which means that the coffee is screen-size 15 and above, with a maximum of 8 defects within 300 grams. (Less common, “American preparation” or AP allows for a screen size above 13, with 23 defects per 300 grams.) Similar sounding but different meaning, “DP” and “TP” on Indonesian coffees stand for “Double picked” and “Triple picked,” respectively: That is simply the number of times the coffee is hand-sorted to remove defects, and doesn’t necessarily relate to a specific number of acceptable defects present.

See? Grades can be as confusing in coffee as they were in high-school algebra.

At Cafe Imports, we take grade into consideration when making purchasing decisions, but it’s never the final factor: We recognize that a lot of variables contribute to quality in coffee, and while screen size or elevation or color might be a few predictors, we prefer to use cupping as a means of determining the overall quality.

Think of this way: If a Kenyan coffee cupped out at 88 or 89 points but was a lower screen-size than an AA, we wouldn’t reject it based on its screen size.

In large part, this is because we primarily deal with small lots and smallholder producers, or growers and associations who are focused on specialty, rather than commodity, production. Our sensory analysis team does its own inspection for defects, including green-coffee analysis and, of course, rigorous cupping. Some coffees wind up on our sheets with very clear indication of grades (Ethiopia, for instance, will always have a grade marker), while others aren’t listed as explicitly. We are always happy to provide more detailed information for any roaster-customer who needs it, though: Don’t ever be too shy to ask!

As an example of some of the information that grades convey, here is a cross-section of grades from just a few of the coffee growing-regions where you might see them listed in a contract. There are plenty others, as well: You can find out more about specific countries’ grades by visiting our Origin pages.

Download PDF here.